State sues US to get beluga whale listing rescinded

George Bryson
Belugas are toothed whales that grow to about 15 feet long. They are sometimes called sea canaries because of their vocalizations.

The state of Alaska plans to sue the federal government over its recent decision to list Cook Inlet beluga whales as an endangered species, the governor's office reported Wednesday. The lawsuit would try to rescind the listing.

It's warranted because the beluga population near Anchorage may already be recovering through cooperative state and federal management efforts, Gov. Sarah Palin said.

"This (endangered species) listing didn't take those efforts into account as required by law," Palin said in a press release posted online.

Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg also faulted the National Marine Fisheries Service for alleged procedural errors in its decision and for not adequately explaining why the Cook Inlet whales should be regarded as a "distinct population" worthy of special protection.

"Failure to consider protection measures already in place and failure to document and support key elements of this decision are major flaws in the final rule," Colberg said.

But various Alaska scientists and environmental groups close to the controversy criticized the lawsuit.

"It seems the Palin administration only likes one kind of science -- the kind it agrees with," said Craig Matkin, an Alaska marine mammal specialist with the North Gulf Oceanic Society. "Every objective expert who's looked at this small and isolated (beluga) population agrees it should be listed."

Audubon Alaska scientist John Schoen noted that the protective status for local belugas was strongly endorsed by the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission enpaneled by Congress.

Palin has warned that special beluga protections could do "serious long-term damage to the vibrant economy of Cook Inlet" -- possibly by delaying offshore oil and gas drilling, building of a proposed Knik Arm bridge and an ambitious expansion project at the Port of Anchorage.

But the endangered species designation doesn't have to turn into an economic calamity, said Bob Shavelson, director of the Cook Inletkeeper organization, which advocates protecting the estuary's sealife and habitat while harvesting the Inlet's resources.

"Responsible development and endangered species can co-exist," Shavelson said. "The Palin administration should respect the science and the rule of law -- not throw public tax dollars at a frivolous lawsuit."

Part of the disagreement focuses on differences of opinion regarding the quality and quantity of local belugas. Anecdotal reports that date back a half century suggest that thousands of the small white whales used to thrive in Cook Inlet until hunting took its toll.

In 1979 an aerial survey of the inlet belugas by University of Alaska biologists estimated their numbers at about 1,300 animals.

In 1994 National Marine Fisheries Service biologists only found half that many. By 1998, the population had fallen to 347, NMFS said.

That prompted strict controls on the Alaska Native subsistence harvest of the Cook Inlet whales under terms of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Still, the beluga population in the inlet has been slow to respond, federal biologists say. The present population is estimated at about 375 whales.

Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd thinks that represents progress. "The population is stable and beginning to recover," Lloyd said in the governor's press release.

In a nine-page "notice of intent to file a lawsuit" -- which the state attorney general's office delivered Tuesday to outgoing Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and NMFS officials -- Colberg also questioned whether the Cook Inlet belugas should be distinguished from four other beluga populations that thrive off the coastline of western and northern Alaska.

Federal scientists say the answer is yes -- that Cook Inlet is home to the only beluga population south of the Alaska Peninsula, and its glacial fjord and tidal estuary setting in particular provides a unique whale habitat.

Says Colberg: "These two determinations are inadequately documented."

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